Demographic drop-off

EditorsNov 19, 2015

Demographic drop-off

Editor-in-Chief Michelle Graff looks at the reasons why people are getting out of, and not getting into, the jewelry industry.

A few weeks ago, we published a story on the latest quarterly statistics from the Jewelers Board of Trade, which showed that the size of the jewelry industry is continuing to contract, meaning more people are getting out of this business than are getting into it.

And just today, we wrote about the retirement of yet another longtime jeweler, Gary Thrapp of G. Thrapp Jewelers in Indianapolis. Thrapp has been in business since 1984 and met David Yurman back when his company had one salesman, David Yurman. Today, Thrapp started his going-of-business sale after 31 years in the industry.

The reasons for the industry shrinkage are varied and, though they have been well documented up to this point, after I wrote my most recent JBT story, I began reaching out to retailers and others in the industry to get their perspective. What do they think is the No. 1 factor, or factors, contributing to jewelers closing?

As it turned out, very few could narrow it down to just one thing, but one answer that came up in nearly every reply was this: simple demographics.

The baby boomers, which are the second-largest generation in the U.S., second only to their millennial children, have been running the country’s jewelry stores—and essentially its jewelry industry—for years, but guess what’s happening to them? The same thing that happens to everyone: they are getting old and they want to retire.

I can’t say I blame them.

Retail has changed completely in recent years and in order to keep up in this digital age, jewelers have to figure out new ways of reaching customers and stock different kinds of product—some of which might not be the fine jewelry they are used to—all while fending off online competition and keeping up with the expectations of an increasingly demanding, but not necessarily spendthrift, consumer.

If you were in your mid-50s or 60s and staring down the last five or 10 years of a long career, would you be willing to put in the time and energy to completely change your business if you had the means, or enough of the means, to retire? I wouldn’t.

Some might say the problem is that jewelers are unable to adapt to retailing in the digital age, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I think in some cases it’s more a matter of willingness. Why change

your business completely, with no promise that it’s going to pan out, just to keep your shop open a few more years?

As Dennis Petimezas, owner of Watchmakers Diamonds and Jewelry in Johnstown, Pa., put it, “If you’re 75 to 80 percent of where you need to be to successfully retire, why take the risk? ... Can a mature independent afford to make a mistake at this point and have to work even longer to then try and correct it?”

I think it’s more logical to just take the money you can get out of your business now and retire. Or, if you still need the money and/or just aren’t ready to spend all day on the golf course, do something still jewelry-oriented but perhaps a little (or a lot) less stressful than being a small business owner.

Another factor contributing to the shrinking industry is the decreasing number of young people stepping into the family business.

There are some who say the younger generation is not willing to put in the time it takes to run a small retail store, but I don’t agree with that blanket statement any more that I agree with the assertion that older jewelers are retiring simply because they can’t figure out Facebook.

The majority of companies today are running lean, with one employee shouldering a workload that once was handled by two or even three people. Staff are working long hours no matter what the profession, made longer by the fact that people are on email nearly 24 hours a day.

I don’t think it’s a matter of young people not being willing to work; I think, in many cases, it’s just a matter of them picking different career paths, working for companies that are much younger and, by extension, seem hipper and cooler.

Jewelry isn’t the only industry with this problem.

Over the summer, Fortune magazine did a video interview with GE CEO Jeff Immelt.

Immelt told the interviewer that luring young talent away from Facebook, Google and startups and to GE is one of the issues that keeps him up at night, and this concern is evident in GE’s current advertising campaign featuring Owen, a new, young programmer/developer at GE.

Have you seen these commercials? There are a couple different versions (one of which you can view below) but the message in each is clear: Young people, come work at GE. The work you’ll be doing here will transform the way the world works.

Jewelry does not have its own Owen, but that does not mean the industry’s organizations are ignorant of the need to attract young talent.

The Diamond Council of America, MJSA, the Independent Jewelers Organization, the American Gem Society, the International Colored Gemstone Association and U.S. Antique Shows, which just crowned its first “Antique Young Gun” this past weekend, all are working to pique the next generation’s interest in jewelry. Our associate editor, Brecken, profiled their efforts in our last digital magazine.

It’s not a BBDO-created national advertising campaign on the same scale as GE’s Owen. But, it is a step in the right direction, and it addresses one of the problems impacting the incredible shrinking jewelry industry.
Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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